Representatives of farmers from Punjab who are protesting a set of laws enacted to liberalise the farm sector held talks on Friday with agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar and railways, food and consumer affairs minister Piyush Goyal, but the seven-hour-long negotiations did not result in any breakthrough ahead of a planned march to the national capital on November 26 by thousands of cultivators.
Food bowl Punjab is at the centre stage of a farmers’ agitation against three laws enacted on September 24 that open up agricultural markets in the country and bring sweeping reforms to the farm sector, which supports nearly half the population.
Food secretary Sudhanshu Pandey on November 10 invited leaders of at least 30 farmers’ bodies, including constituents of the All-India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKCC), an umbrella platform spearheading the protests, for talks with the two ministers, in an attempt to end a politically challenging farmers’ uprising.
People familiar with the developments said that, at the meeting, held at Vigyan Bhawan, participating farm leaders demanded an outright repeal of the three laws and a roll-back of the reforms; a legislation guaranteeing minimum support prices (MSP); the resumption of goods train services in Punjab; the pending Electricity (Amendment) Bill, 2020 be sent to a select committee; and the repeal of an air pollution ordinance for the national Capital that aims to crack down on farm stubble fires.
A government statement at the end of the talks stated that “various issues related to farmers’ welfare were discussed at length and the talks were held in a cordial atmosphere with both sides agreeing to continue to hold further discussions”.
AIKCC said Friday’s talks were “inconclusive” and the government offered no “concrete assurances” but talks could continue in future. “There was no agreement on any issue. We made it clear that we want the three laws repealed. We told them that farmers don’t want these laws because they are meant to benefit businesses rather than farmers,” said Darshan Pal of the Krantikari Kisan Union, a participant. Pal’s organisation is a constituent of AIKSCC.
The three laws farmers are protesting, together, allow agribusinesses to freely trade farm produce without restrictions, permit private traders to stockpile large quantities of essential commodities for future sales and lay down new rules for contract farming.
Farmers say the reforms will make them vulnerable to exploitation by big corporations, erode their bargaining power and weaken the government’s MSP system, which offers cultivators assured prices from the government, largely for wheat and rice.
The three legislations are The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance, Farm Services Act, 2020 and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act 2020, which Parliament cleared in September.
The delegation sought a legislation guaranteeing MSP and procurement, which refers to the government’s buying of farm produce at federally determined assured prices.
“The government did its best to address a key fear of the farmers’ delegation that the MSP system will be weakened. The assumption that MSP could be withdrawn is simply not correct,” a farm ministry official said, requesting anonymity. There were two rounds of discussion on this issue.
The government presented farmers with procurement data, which showed that support prices for rice under the Modi government had increased 43% between 2013-14 and 2020-21, and foodgrain quantity procured had gone up 109% in the same period.
“Since the government assured us that MSP would continue, we repeatedly asked what is the problem in bringing a law to guarantee it. The ministers evaded this question,” Pal said.
“We also asked rail minister Piyush Goyal to resume goods train services in Punjab and not punish the state since we have vacated stations, trains and even platforms but the minister sought a guarantee that we will allow passenger train movement too, which wedidn’t agree,” he added.
Farmers in the state have blocked rail tracks and road transport as part of their protests. “We have said please don’t demand of us that we concede and give in writing to allow passenger train movement too as a pre-condition, which is basically like asking us to call off the agitation itself,” said Avik Saha, the secretary of AIKSCC.
The delegation demanded that the government refer the Electricity (Amendment) Bill, 2020, currently awaiting Parliament’s approval, to a select committee. Farmers have opposed a key provision of the bill, which provides for a direct-benefit-transfer mechanism for transferring power subsidy directly in cash to eligible consumers, including farmers, a major recipient of subsidised power.
The farmers also sought a repeal of an ordinance passed by on October 29 to tackle air pollution, called The Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas, 2020 because it “seeks to unfairly penalise farmers for crop-residue burning”, said another participant Balbir Singh of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Rajewal faction).
“We demanded that all intellectuals arrested by the government should be freed. There are court cases against farmers too, which should be withdrawn,” Pal added.
Friday’s talks appear to be an attempt by the government to be accommodative of a precondition set by farm leaders that any talks must happen in the presence of Union ministers.